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Practical Police Psychology: Intimacy & family time

By Laurence Miller, PhD

Q: I’ve been a law enforcement officer for eleven years, and I’ve been married for twelve. Lately, my wife says I have a “problem with intimacy.” She wants me to be affectionate and pay attention to her and the kids, which I understand. But when I come home from my shift, I’m just emotionally drained and need some time to thaw out. How can I get her to understand that I need a little space, and that it doesn’t mean I don’t love her and our kids anymore?

A: A human being has a finite amount of energy – physical and emotional – that gets expended during the course of any demanding work shift. We all need time to recharge our batteries. But as a general rule, the job of policing – or any job for that matter – shouldn’t permanently drain away every last drop of family energy, and certainly not every day. There are at least two main reasons why police officers develop family intimacy problems, and these often come from opposite directions.

In the first case, the job really does have an effect. It’s no surprise that police work can be stressful, and officers may shut down emotionally when they come home in order to stay “sealed over” from the painful pressures of the job. It’s as if opening up emotionally to the family would risk making yourself and them vulnerable to the effects of the grime and slime you may have had to deal with during your shift. Such stresses may also include administrative pressures and departmental squabbles. In fact, many officers find these kinds of hassles even worse than what happens on the street.

In the second case, if you’re the kind of person who’s always had problems with emotional intimacy, or if a previously good relationship seems to be headed south, then let’s face it, the pressures of police work provide a ready excuse for demanding more and more time away from home. In this way, marital and family stresses that have nothing to do with the job can be blamed on work, and you may actually find yourself racking up that overtime precisely to avoid dealing with the problems at home.

If you really want to make things better, here’s what you can do.

First, explain the situation. Most mates will understand if you tell them you need a little time to decompress, especially if you explain that this will help recharge your emotional batteries, enabling you to be fully present when you’re feeling refreshed.

Second, try “dosing” family time. Set aside a couple of hours on the weekend, when you’ve had a chance to relax and plan a relatively easygoing family outing to a movie or restaurant. Pick an activity you like, so it’s not a chore. If that works out well – that is, you and everybody else has a good time – then increase the level and frequency of the “dose” next time, maybe to half a day. Subsequent outings may be for a whole day, then a weekend, and so on.

At the same time, reserve the right to pull back a little when you’re feeling stressed out. The fact that you’ve already made several good-faith gestures toward family togetherness will buy you points you can cash in when you need a reprieve, because your family will know your heart’s in the right place.

Third, break things up a little, to avoid monotony and tedium. Spend one outing just with the kids. Another time, take the spouse to dinner. Other times, go fishing with the boys. Variety is the spice of a lot of things, including your social life. But reserve some “family rituals” like birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, and so on, so your family life will retain some of its specialness.

The interesting thing is, that by being proactive in spending a reasonable amount of family time, your spouse and kids won’t feel like they have to chase you to get you to prove your affection, and you may actually end up with way more free time than you dreamed of.

NOTE: If you have a question for this column, please submit it to the Practical Police Psychology Column.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

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